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The Irresistible Lure of Public Service

My 15th reunion inspired questions about my life and how I had filled it to date. In catching up with old friends, I was struck by how our lives had taken different turns. While many of my friends were balancing the strains of career and family, I realized that my sense of purpose has come largely from my work in public service, particularly for Teach For America.

I first came to know this organization during my senior year—Teach For America’s start-up year—when I applied to become a corps member. At the time, Teach For America was little more than a group of idealistic young people rallying around an idea dreamed up by then-23-year-old Wendy Kopp as part of her senior thesis at Princeton. Wendy and her team targeted Yale as its first recruitment campus. To get the word out, a Yale senior placed a flyer under each classmate’s door that called on us to commit two years to teach in under-resourced communities. I still remember that December morning, during the frenzy of grad-school applications and job searching, when we all woke up to find the flyer. By the end of the day, several friends had stuffed their flyers into my hands, saying it sounded like the thing for me to do. They knew of my devotion to my students at the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation, a Yale student-run program that provides academic services for underprivileged New Haven youths showing exceptional promise but otherwise having limited access to academic resources.

I applied to Teach For America—and nothing else. That spring, I was selected, along with approximately 500 other seniors across the nation (including 20 or 30 from Yale)—to be a member of the organization’s first-ever corps. I was assigned to teach fourth and fifth graders at P.S. 307 in Brooklyn. After graduation, I headed to Los Angeles for training and then relocated again at summer’s end to start my teaching commitment in New York City.

During my three years at P.S. 307, I saw the disparities between the lives of my students, who grew up in the massive public housing complex near the shadows of the Manhattan Bridge, and the lives of the well-to-do New Yorkers who lived just several miles north in close proximity to Central Park, world-famous museums, and luxury boutiques. As I observed my fourth and fifth graders growing up in the toughest conditions—yet somehow getting by—I wondered how much more they could have achieved under different circumstances or with a little assistance. Sometimes my students managed to rise above their harsh realities and even excel in school. Through these experiences, I saw the gap between our nation’s ideals of equal opportunity and the brutal reality of my students' lives. But I also became more confident in our ability to change things. This in turn strengthened my commitment and my resolve.

I have attempted to branch out over the years. I returned to school to earn my JD/MBA, tried summer internships at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a corporate law firm, and did a stint at McKinsey, the management consulting firm. But each time, I found the lure of public service irresistible, and like so many other corps members who have come after me, I returned to Teach For America to strengthen our public schools and expand educational opportunity for all.

One of Teach For America’s supporters, a Yale graduate herself, e-mailed me recently to say how proud she was that Yale had opened its new fundraising campaign with a video clip of a recent Yale graduate who decided to join Teach For America before going to medical school. I am proud to have graduated from an institution that is glad to be associated with our movement for educational equity. I am also inspired to see that more than 15 years after Teach For America’s founding, Yale continues to serve as a top feeder school for us, with 10 to 12 percent of Yale’s senior class applying to Teach For America in each of the last few years. Seeing top graduates of one of the nation’s leading universities choose Teach For America over prestigious (and more lucrative) jobs fuels both my sense of optimism and my urgency that one day, we will achieve our vision. of educational opportunity for all children in this nation.




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